Management and the World Cup

Management and the World Cup

For the last four weeks there’s been no shortage of bar-room and armchair pundits with an opinion whether it’s players or managers who are really responsible for World Cup goals (or the lack of them). But where do the professionals who are paid to study and teach the art of effective teamwork lay the praise or blame?

Business school professors spend their working lives teaching management and leadership skills to corporate executives around the world. So how do they rate the managerial approaches that brought success or dismal failure to their nations’ football teams in this year’s World Cup?

From an international perspective, Australian coach, Pim Verbeek, seemed to do a reasonable job, taking his ‘Socceroos’ as far as they could be expected to go in the competition. But not far enough or with the right attitude according to Professor Richard Speed of Melbourne Business School. “Australia takes its national identity from the battling underdog – soldiers pinned down on the shores of Gallipoli, Ned Kelly fighting to the last surrounded by police, or cricketers facing bodyline bowling,” he says. “The Australian national culture requires a “red hot go”, even in the most inauspicious of circumstances. What Verbeek was guilty of was to be seen to be trying not to lose, rather than trying to win. And trying not to lose, and then losing, is the ultimate crime against Australianess!”

French coach, Raymond Domenech, faced perhaps more problems than any other manager in the competition with players subjecting him to verbal abuse and then going on strike. Domenech subsequently had to face the private wrath of no less a personage than French president, Nicholas Sarkozy. He also gets little or no support from one of the country’s top business schools, HEC Paris. “His main mistake was to assume that a team spirit could be achieved by cutting the team off from the outside world,” says HEC’s dean, Bernard Ramanantsoa. “But in sport and in business, the most efficient cultures are developed by opening up to all stakeholders whether they are fans or clients, sports reporters or business journalists. Closing yourself off in this way is a classic, deadly mistake. Perhaps if he’d taken the time to read some of the literature on the subject he wouldn’t have found himself making such an uncomfortable visit to the Elysee Palace.”

Fabio Capello might have escaped an interview with David Cameron and held onto his job but has nevertheless failed to impress Professor Roger Mumby-Croft of the Enterprise Hub at Warwick Business School. “Watching England it was clear that there was no understanding of what constitutes a successful team culture,” he says. “As in some dysfunctional company you had a group of specialist individuals who thought they had a specific job to do within tight sectoral boundaries . And when things started to go wrong there was little or no ability to regroup in a cohesive style. Whether you’re playing football or running a business the best way to deal with changing circumstances is to have an integrated team where individuals have the freedom to create and apply solutions but within a supportive management framework.” And that’s precisely what England didn’t have.

Although the team that sent England home shortly took their own trip to the airport, its manager, Joachim Löw, largely confounded his critics despite the relative inexperience of many German players. “Löw stuck to his policy of building young talent in the face of negative public opinion and talking heads in the media,” says Professor Francis Bidault at the European School of Management and Technology in Berlin. “He successfully managed such young players  by allowing individuals to be creative within set boundaries, while ensuring that their egos were always second to the interests of the team as a whole. His success was the polar opposite of his French counterpart, who had some great players but was unable to motivate them to fight for a common vision.”

So much for the teams who took an early bath, but what management lessons can we learn from the countries that made it all the way to the final? “Van Marwijk showed that successful leadership is all about combining inspiring ambition with a supportive culture,” says Professor André Wierdsma at Nyenrode Business Universiteit in the Netherlands, “because if you get the balance right these forces strengthen each other. He seemed to instinctively understand that what really counts either on the field or in  the workplace is the way that individuals react with each other to achieve a common aim. And he created exactly the right environment to make this happen.”

The right environment perhaps, but obviously not the perfect one or it would have been Van Bronckhurst raising the trophy on Sunday night rather than Casillas. And, according to Santiago Iniguez, dean of IE Business School in Madrid, Spain’s brilliant run throughout the tournament can largely be attributed to the management style of Vicente del Bosque. “He’s the archetypal cool, calm, cerebral type,” says Iniguez. “He believes that playing well is a result of a carefully developed plan. For him, strategy takes priority over passion. He rarely shouts or expresses his emotions and he very rarely accepts tributes, referring all congratulations to his players. He’s probably a prime example of elegant, effective and collaborative leadership. And how can you argue with a leadership style that won the World Cup?”

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